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STUDIO Warner Home Video
RUNNING TIME 129 Minutes
• Maximum Movie Mode, hotedby Robert Downey Jr.
• Seven “Focus Points” (Featurettes)
• Ultraviolet digital copy
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and the recently-married Watson (Jude Law) go on a wild chase across Europe to prevent the evil Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) from starting a war.
Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Guy Ritchie, and Noomi Rapace
In this sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. squeezes into more silly outfits than a Monty Python cast member while Jude Law and Noomi Rapace look on in bewilderment.
I haven’t fallen asleep in a movie theater since I was a wee lad, but Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes had me fighting to keep my eyes open. To be more specific, I felt the humor was flat, the story was forgettable, and the cast lacked chemistry. A Game of Shadows manages to improve on several of its predecessor’s weaker points, but falters due to its broad slapstick humor, wonky logic, and inability to properly implement its villain. It is a sequel that manages to be slightly more engaging, but dumber than its predecessor.
Let’s start with Holmes himself. While Robert Downey Jr. is a fantastic performer capable of delivering greatness (just see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), I don’t think he’s right for this character. Why anyone would cast an American to play Sherlock Holmes is beyond me. The character has a certain unshakable Englishness that I believe can’t be replicated by an American. In A Game of Shadows, Downey Jr. elevates Holmes from character to caricature, swigging formaldehyde and filling his flat with jungle foliage. He’s played like a bipolar cartoon at the peak of a manic phase. All of this silliness causes us to lose connection with our hero, who seems too far gone to be relatable. I felt very little empathy for this man, who is losing his best friend to marriage and retirement, whose brother always tries to belittle him, and whose love interest dies in the film’s first ten minutes. Despite these things, I can’t seem to feel bad for him, because this version of Holmes seems to be having a grand time acting like a savant Chief Inspector Clouseau.
Another odd parallel to The Pink Panther series is that the filmmakers seemed to get tremendous delight in putting Holmes in as many silly disguises as possible. The film opens with him garbed in an audaciously racist Chinese disguise, which soon gives way to long underwear painted to look like a bookcase, Holmes dressing in drag, like a bellhop, an old man, a gypsy… the list goes on. The gag is stale by the second act, yet persists through the entire film.
In stark contrast, everyone else around Downey Jr. is pretty great. Jude Law has always been quite good, and this time around, Watson is a much better-written character with more to do. We see his stiff-upper-lip shell start to crumble when his stag party (that’s an English bachelor party) erupts into a drunken brawl. He arrives at his wedding hung over, and perhaps a bit reluctant to give up his previous life. There’s a brilliant moment of physical comedy when our heroes pull up to the chapel and Holmes has to drag a grumpy, petulant Watson out of a motor carriage. The tumultuous friendship between Holmes and Watson seems much more real in A Game of Shadows, even if their interactions periodically devolve into slapstick.
Jared Harris was a really inspired choice for Moriarty. Casting a more famous actor might’ve detracted from the role, but casting Harris allows the audience to invest more in the character, instead of concentrating on who played him. Harris’s portrayal is subtle, intelligent, and quietly menacing. However, one of this film’s biggest failures is that Moriarty doesn’t get much time to be established, and the character’s immense franchise potential is ultimately wasted. It’s a hard sell that Moriarty is the true nemesis and rival of Holmes, because the two really don’t have any history together in this franchise. They meet for the first time at the beginning of this film’s second act. In fact, we spend so little time with Moriarty, that the entirety of his characterization is rattled off to the audience in one line of dialogue, when Holmes analyses Moriarty’s handwriting. This is blatantly lazy storytelling. We don’t need to be told what Moriarty is like, just show us.
Every performance I’ve seen from Noomi Rapace has been a good one, and she keeps it up. Unfortunately, her character isn’t given a whole lot to do in A Game of Shadows. She’s merely tagging along with Holmes and Watson because her brother is a plot device. Her gypsy character is refreshing, albeit a tad stereotypical. She doesn’t have any romantic tension with Holmes or Watson, which was a wise decision. I’m definitely glad the more mystical aspects of her character were abandoned, as mysticism has no place in a Sherlock Holmes story.
Stephen Fry is a very welcome addition as Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft Holmes. His performance is hilariously funny, even as he parades around in the nude. I’m an unabashed fan of Stephen Fry, who is described in one of the disc’s featurettes as a national treasure of Britain. I agree wholeheartedly.
The film’s narrative also works its way into situations that can only be solved by faulty movie logic or near-psychic powers of deduction. For instance, Moriarty’s thugs attack Watson and his new wife (a lovely Kelly Reilly) while aboard the train to their honeymoon. Luckily, Holmes is there to thwart to attack. During the melée, the train suffers two grenade explosions, causing it to lose the back half of the train. What happens, you may ask? Well, the front half of the train just keeps chugging along to its destination. This is one of a few large leaps in logic throughout the story.
As a sequel, A Game of Shadows has to top the action of the first film, and it quickly does so. Unlike the first film, I wasn’t bored while watching this one. The action here is fairly well choreographed, but way overblown. Several minutes into the film, Holmes is in full kung fu mode, kicking ass in the streets of Victorian London. The film’s biggest action scene, which involves Holmes and company running through a dense forest under heavy gunfire, is so over-cut and full of bullet time wankery that it seems like something from a different film.
To keep things light on spoilers, let me just say that movie ends on an odd, unsatisfying note. The climax pays homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Final Problem”, in which Holmes puts an end to his long-standing rivalry with Moriarty. It’s a brilliant ending, but it doesn’t belong in this movie. It would’ve been a great payoff if we felt like Holmes and Moriarty had a long-standing rivalry, but in A Game of Shadows, they’ve barely even met. It might have worked well for the end of a trilogy, but not here. And don’t even get me started on the film’s cutesy epilogue.
This franchise has been very lucrative for Warner Brothers, and it’s easy to see why. It’s their Pirates of the Caribbean. Adapt an existing property into a series of rollicking, large-scale adventures. Cast an American actor at the peak of his success. Make said actor dress in lavish period costume and speak in an English accent. Hire a director with a penchant for visual style. Hire Hans Zimmer to write the score. The final step is to rake in the cash. It’s easy to see why people like these films, but the fact that Guy Ritchie couldn’t tell a great English detective story with over a hundred million dollars is a huge disappointment. The fact that he had a second chance and still couldn’t do it disappoints me even further.
This is pretty decent presentation with some lackluster extras. The transfer is nearly flawless, with deep black levels and a nice touch of film grain. The muted color palette is represented accurately, and there’s nary a sign of compression artifacts. The surround track crisply pounds with gunfire and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. The seven featurettes on the disc are okay, but they don’t really get into the film’s pre-production. We get to spend a little time on set with Guy Ritchie, but more importantly we get to see just how much creative input Robert Downey Jr. had in this film. The disc also features a “Maximum Movie Mode”, which is infuriating. For those of you who haven’t experienced this sorry excuse for a special feature, you basically watch the film with a constant picture-in-picture of slightly out-of-sync footage from the set.
Every few minutes, the picture fades away and Robert Downey Jr. appears in front of a green screen to talk to us. How anyone thought this was a good idea is totally beyond me. If I want to know how the film was made, I don’t want to watch the whole two-hour film, just to catch poorly cut snippets of footage in one corner of the screen, then have the film interrupted to view the occasional gallery of stills. Just let me see all the extras separately, at my own pace. Give me an audio commentary that I can listen to without having to watch every second of the film. Don’t mash up all the extras into the film viewing experience. If I wanted to be distracted during a film, I’d hire a loud clown to make noise in the next room. But that’s not happening, and neither is Maximum Movie Mode.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars